Well-aerated Southern Appalachian forest soils demonstrate significant potential for gaseous nitrogen loss
Understanding the dominant soil nitrogen (N) cycling processes in southern Appalachian forests is crucial for predicting ecosystem responses to changing N deposition and climate. The role of anaerobic nitrogen cycling processes in well-aerated soils has long been questioned, and recent N cycling research suggests it needs to be re-evaluated. We assessed gross and potential rates of soil N cycling processes, including mineralization, nitrification, denitrification, nitrifier denitrification, and dissimilatory nitrate reduction to ammonium (DNRA) in sites representing a vegetation and elevation gradient in the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Forest Service Experimental Forest, Coweeta Hydrologic Laboratory in southwestern North Carolina, USA. N cycling processes varied among sites, with gross mineralization and nitrification being greatest in high-elevation northern hardwood forests. Gaseous N losses via nitrifier denitrification were common in all ecosystems but were greatest in northern hardwood. Ecosystem N retention via DNRA (nitrification-produced NO3 reduced to NH4) ranged from 2% to 20% of the total nitrification and was highest in the mixed-oak forest. Our results suggest the potential for gaseous N losses through anaerobic processes (nitrifier denitrification) are prevalent in well-aerated forest soils and may play a key role in ecosystem N cycling.